Soviet AIDS

AIDS and the Soviet disinformation campaign

In the 1980s, something called the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) emerged. A sexually transmitted disease that eventually developed into Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) bringing down the body’s natural barriers to infection and cancer. As with Covid, there were wild guesses about its origin at the outset. And into this uncertainty, the Soviet Union’s disinformation efforts exploited fear and ignorance with disastrous consequences.

HIV/AIDS came to public prominence initially because of its impact on LGBT communities in the west. But this 1980s pandemic also ripped through Africa infecting millions of heterosexual men and women. In developing countries, as with Covid, conspiracy theories flourished pointing an accusing finger at rich western countries. Soviet intelligence stoked the flames of fear and suspicion.

DISCOVER: Celebrating LGBT Muslims in history

The Soviet Union developed an information warfare tool in the 1950s it termed ‘active measures‘. We would now call this disinformation or fake news. This involved pushing the story that HIV had escaped from a US military laboratory in Maryland. The KGB and the Stasi – the East German secret police – collaborated to seed this story among journalists using the Soviet press agency, Novosti, and a network of useful idiots and media outlets – sometimes secretly owned by the Russians.

DISCOVER: Inside the Stasi – the East German secret police

This kind of tactic is still employed by Putin’s Russia today. Conspiracy theories are often floated as an alternative or radical or counter-cultural way of looking at things. What Lenin called ‘useful idiots’ – anti-establishment critics hungry for material – are fed narratives that sow disillusionment or mistrust in western institutions including democracy itself. These useful idiots are frequently sourced in academia or among the Twitterati.

The Soviet AIDS theory diverted attention away from animal infection in Africa to American military activity. This found a willing audience among some who felt Africa was being blamed for AIDS. And the Soviets played up on this anti-imperialist, anti-colonialist sentiment. Even more toxic, Soviets pushed the line that the virus had been developed by the US military to deliberately infect minority populations – including within the United States.

Documents now available since the collapse of the Soviet Union are shocking. In one message from the KGB to their Bulgarian secret service counterparts, the objective of the campaign is made very clear:

We are carrying out a complex of [active] measures in connection with the appearance in recent years of a new dangerous disease in the USA, “Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome—AIDS”… and its subsequent, rampant spread to other countries, including Western Europe. The goal of the measures is to create a favorable opinion for us abroad—namely, that this disease is the result of secret experiments by the USA’s secret services and the Pentagon with new types of biological weapons that have spun out of control.

This cynical disinformation campaign by the Soviet Union around HIV and AIDS was only stopped when the virus began to impact people in the USSR. Realising they needed scientific expertise from the west, the Kremlin pulled the plug on the campaign. But it was too late. Infections were already rising rapidly. Even today, Russia has a high rate of HIV infection and while I don’t want to use the word ‘karma’, there is a sad irony that the country which originated so much misinformation – and still does on other topics – is hoist on its own petard, so to speak.

It’s worth noting that Russian disinformation pre-dates the Soviet Union. It was the Tsarist secret police that forged the notorious anti-Semitic document The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, written around 1903. This purported to be a manifesto from Jewish leaders outlining their intent to take over the world. It was plagiarised from a number of sources including Machiavelli and was circulated by the Black Hundreds, a violent, pro-tsarist and ultra-nationalist body of thugs. It was also given an extensive print run in the United States courtesy of a useful idiot by the name of Henry Ford (yep – that Henry Ford!). The document was completely bogus – but is still widely believed today.

Inside the Stasi – the East German secret police!

In 2018, I appeared in the TV documentary series Forbidden History (UKTV, Yesterday) talking about a highly sinister secret police force called the Stasi. This followed a trip I paid to Berlin to see the Stasi prison cells where people were tortured for myself.

Communist East Germany collapsed in 1989. It meant the end of a totalitarian state where the secret police spied on the population using a web of 90,000 paid agents and hundreds of thousands of informers.

I’ve just visited the secret prison of the Ministry for State Security – the Stasi. It’s a grim place where agents physically and psychologically tortured political opponents of the government.

East Germany was created in the image of Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union. This was at the end of the Second World War when Hitler’s Germany was carved up between the Soviet Union, France, United Kingdom and United States. Berlin sat in the middle of Soviet run territory and was in turn divided up between the four victorious powers.

In Soviet occupied Germany, there would be no democracy, no dissent and no freedom of organisation. The East German communist government took orders from Moscow and created a Kafka-esque nightmare of a society. Show trials and denunciation were the norm, echoing the Stalinist purges of the 1930s.

A culture of informing was encouraged. Neighbours, friends, family members and even husbands and wives would spy on each other. Often with a designated code name, they would ring up the Stasi and snitch on their loved ones. Private scores were settled just by picking up the phone and spilling the beans to a Stasi operator.

Only when Stasi files became public in 1990 did people realise the extent of the secret police activity. One woman, now a German politician, discovered her husband had been reporting on her activity to the Stasi for decades. A punk singer who was seen as a bit of  rebel was in fact a spy. All over the country, listening devices were planted in suspect’s flats or even in bizarre places like nesting boxes, watering cans and even a specially designed bra!!

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The cell inside the supposed delivery van

Once somebody came to the Stasi’s attention, they would be picked up and taken to the prison I visited for interrogation. They might be dragged out of their home or simply accosted in public. The hapless individual was then bundled into what deliberately looked like a delivery van. It could contain up to five very cramped cells.

They were then driven for hours, unable to see out of the window. This would create the impression that the prison was far from their home when in fact, it might have been a mere 20 minute ride. From outside, ordinary people would have just seen a delivery van for groceries trundling past.

They they arrived at the Stasi prison. The van stopped in a holding bay harshly illuminated by strip lighting. The political detainees shielded their eyes and fell to the ground. This was followed by a strip search, an exercise in humiliation. A kind of track suit was then issued with no consideration given to size. If it was ill-fitting – so much the better. Everything was geared to dehumanising the suspect.

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Down in the “submarine”

In the basement of one building is an underground labyrinth of corridors and cells nicknamed the “submarine” – a windowless hell where the first inmates in the late 1940s and 1950s were incarcerated. With no light, prisoners hadn’t any idea whether it was day or night. Twelve or fifteen shared a single cell with one bucket to relieve themselves and a single bed to share on a rota. Many died in that darkness.

Then from the 1950s until 1989, a newer wing was used. The cells there had windows – and bars. Each prisoner had a room to themselves with toilet, bed and sink. But this heralded a new form of degradation.  Physical beatings and summary executions were replaced by sleep deprivation and months of vicious mind games.

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Keep prisoners awake by ratting the cell door

How was sleep deprived? Inmates were ordered to sleep on their back, arms to the sides and staring up a light bulb that flashed on intermittently through the night. If a prisoner fell asleep and turned on to their side, the cell door was rattled until they woke.

Sleep deprivation is a devastatingly effective form of torture. Add to that the horror of solitary confinement for months on end. Prisoners began to relish the sessions with their interrogator who came to be seen as a kind of friend. That was the intention. Bit by bit, it became easier to extract a confession.

It’s incredible to think this all carried on until 1989 and the collapse of communism in central and eastern Europe. The Moscow-inspired Stalinist system was hated by most of the Left and Right in post-war Europe. But it had – and still has – its admirers. In recent years, a couple of Stasi agents have very publicly crawled out of the woodwork trying to justify what they did back in those days.

If you want to know more about the Stasi, I recommend this movie: The Lives of Others.

Russia and fake news – a long history!

Russia and fake news go together like a horse and carriage it would seem. Troll factories in St Petersburg and elsewhere pump out messaging intended to undermine confidence in democracy and western values. And with some success.

The mundanely titled Internet Research Agency in St Petersburg is a global centre of disinformation. But this kind of manufacturing of misinformation on an industrial scale isn’t knew for Russia. They have been dealing in fake news since the Soviet era.

Russia spreading fake news about AIDS in the 1980s

The disinformation and twisting of facts has a longer pedigree in Russia than you might think. The tricks were actually developed in the pre-digital Soviet Union and have simply transferred across to the internet. One story from the 1980s shows how this kind of disinformation has been around for a while.

When AIDS first emerged at the beginning of the 80s, the Soviets decided to implicate the US as the main culprit. The KGB, the Soviet secret police, set about planting stories that would blame American interests for the spread of the HIV/AIDS virus.

‘Active measures’ – the Soviet forerunner of fake news from Russia

This kind of disinformation was referred to as “active measures” by the CIA. It was believed the Soviets spent about three billion dollars a year on disinformation initiatives.

In the pre-digital 1980s and before, the Soviets used TV, radio, newspapers, embassies and supposed experts to carry the false lines. To be successful, active measures had to include a germ of truth – that was exaggerated and distorted.

The stories also had to tap into widespread public anxieties and suspicions. So with AIDS, why not exploit fears about secret labs developing germ warfare experiments and people being secretly and unknowingly tested with deadly viruses?

On 17 July, 1983, a letter appeared in a small circulation Indian newspaper called The Patriot alleging that the AIDS virus was a result of Pentagon backed tests to develop new biological weapons.

Just to make sure the Indian readership of this newspaper sat up and took notice, the letter added that these tests were being moved to Pakistan, secretly of course. And there would be a danger of this toxic virus spreading across the border to India.

This was all laced with true facts about AIDS and the US biological weapons program. And the Soviets always made sure to pepper falsifications with lots of verifiable data – that would convince the end user it must be true.

False media titles spread fake news for Russia

How did this letter get published so easily? Well, the KGB had set up The Patriot in 1967 for the purpose of circulating pro-Soviet stories in India. Why did the Soviets circulate such an immoral story? Because they were coming under attack for their own biological weapons research!

Soviet news sources now began to circulate the story quoting the letter from a mysterious American scientist in….The Patriot. Now all that was required was an unwitting agent within the scientific community to endorse the allegation. And the KGB couldn’t believe its luck when a retired East German biophysicist Professor Jakob Segal became an enthusiastic proponent of the lie.

Actually, luck had nothing to do with it – the Soviets got their opposite numbers in the East German secret police, the Stasi, to reach out to Segal and brief him in a friendly and informal manner. He was not to feel used and manipulated. Instead, he would buy into the story himself – of his own volition.

A useful idiot to spread fake news for mother Russia

Segal was a committed communist. That said, it’s unlikely he believed that he was simply a tool of the Kremlin. All the evidence points to an intelligent man who became completely convinced that the United States had indeed unleashed the AIDS virus from one of its laboratories. In a pamphlet called AIDS – its nature and origin, Segal rejected the idea that AIDS had started in Africa and pointed the finger of blame firmly at the US.

How did the virus spread to the LGBT community? Segal claimed that US scientists had experimented on gay prisoners. They had then spread it through unprotected sex with partners on the scene in New York and San Francisco.

By placing the origin of AIDS in the US, Segal’s views were enthusiastically taken up by sections of the African media. Yet there were clearly African victims – so how had they been infected? A notorious variant on the Soviet lie was developed in a Nigerian newspaper in 1988 that the Americans had tested dodgy polio vaccines on poor Africans in the 1960s.

The Soviets pushed their line through every offline medium: newspapers, radio, TV, handbills, rumours, etc. By 1987, it had popped up in over 200 publications in 25 languages. Segal was given virtually uncritical coverage in British newspapers.

North Korea chipped in with a scare campaign that US soldiers in South Korea were spreading AIDS while broadcasts in Turkish from within the USSR said US bases in Turkey were a health risk.

Russia has second thoughts about its own fake news!

But…the USSR began to have second thoughts. Cases of HIV/AIDS were appearing within the Soviet Union and scientists there openly argued against the Segal view.

Gradually, the Kremlin realised that any political capital to be made out of this disinformation campaign was heavily outweighed by the growing public health problem within their own society. The Soviets needed to be sharing information with scientists in the west to combat the virus instead of trashing them with this AIDS fabrication.

So on this occasion, the story was allowed to quietly die.